Carl Edwards won his first Nextel Cup pole since 2005 on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, and he’ll lead a 43-car field into Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500 that features three former Indianapolis 500 winners for the first time.
Edwards, driving the No. 99 car for Roush Fenway Racing, edged Martin Truex Jr. by three-thousands of a second (27.114 to 27.117) on the first of his two qualifying laps on the one-mile oval.
“Since we unloaded (the car), this thing has been fast, so I’m really proud of my guys,” said Edwards, who sits fifth in the Chase for the championship points race, a distant 357 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson’s closest rival in the championship, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (30 points back), was third fastest with a lap at 27.129 seconds.
Johnson will start a row behind Gordon after qualifying sixth. With track position important on PIR‘s mile oval, Gordon struck the first blow in their championship fight.
“I am happy that we are third,” said Gordon, who won the pole and the race in April at PIR. “I would rather have been first, but I am really glad we aren’t 10th or 15th or further on back.”
NASCAR’s open-wheel invaders had their strongest qualifying showing of the season Friday, landing four drivers in the field, including Indy 500 winners Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Jacques Villeneuve (1995) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2000). Former Champ Car driver Patrick Carpentier also made the field.
Hornish, 0-for-6 in previous Nextel Cup qualifying attempts, will be formally introduced today as Penske Racing’s third full-time driver in the Cup series for next season. He’ll start 26th Sunday.
Villeneuve (27th) and Carpentier (24th) will be making their second Nextel Cup starts.
Montoya, a Formula One driver who began the latest open-wheel defection trend last season, qualified 14th.
Truex, who worked his way to the Cup series through stock car’s minor league circuits, applauded the open-wheel drivers’ efforts.
“I think it says a lot about NASCAR and the sport and how great of a series we have here and how competitive it is,” he said. “For those guys to be as successful as they are in their own right and in their own series (and) to want to come over here and race with us, I just think it says a lot for the competition and the competitors here.”
While three Indy 500 winners cracked the field, three Daytona 500 winners weren’t as fortunate. Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip and Ward Burton were among six drivers who failed to qualify.
Jarrett, driving the No. 44 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, had his streak of running in every Cup race at PIR snapped at 22. Jarrett won the Dura Lube 500 at PIR in 1997. Waltrip had raced in 20 of the first 21 Cup races at PIR. He also failed to qualify for the April race at PIR.
Clint Bowyer, with a long-shot chance at contending for the championship (third place, 181 points behind Johnson) qualified 20th.
Other notables: Tony Stewart will start behind Bowyer in 21st and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in Row 18 (35th).